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Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future Hardcover – May 5, 2015
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America's economy is now obviously stuck in a rut, notwithstanding the almost daily reports of new technologies, green products, and purportedly beneficial free trade pacts. In fact, author Ford (and others) tells us we're now realizing this formerly symbiotic relationship between increasing productivity and rising standards of living began weakening in the 1970s. In a 1/2/2010 article, the Washington Post reported that the just completed first decade of the 21st century brought no new jobs, a first since the Great Depression. This 'lost decade' is especially astonishing when one also realizes our economy needs to create about a million jobs/year just to keep up with growth in the size of the workforce. Meanwhile, income inequality has rebounded, reaching levels not seen since 1929
Ford (mistakenly) attributes this new economy entirely to automation, severely underestimating the impact of offshoring. Regardless, automation has also been a major contributor to job losses both in manufacturing and service sectors, and underlying automation's increasingly rapid (geometric) growth - Moore's Law, applied to both computer power and memory. Both areas are seeing a rough doubling in capability every two years - continuing a pace that began about 40 years ago and now bringing unimaginable (scope and pace) change throughout our economy.
We now have experimental self-driving cars, IBM's 'Watson' defeating all-time Jeopardy! champions, innumerable 'ugly teller' ATMs taking the place much more attractive tellers, airplanes can now largely fly themselves, computers interpret some medical images, much legal discovery work now is performed far faster and cheaper with scanners and PC programs, cash registers not only automatically calculate change due - they also input customer-specific data into huge databases, meetings no longer require expensive and time-consuming travel, hardware stores are testing robots as greeters that also help direct customers and are able to immediately tell them if a part they're looking for is in stock, robots are becoming cheaper and much more easily programmable, etc. Thus, wages for new college graduates have been declining in real terms over the past decade and up to half of new graduates are forced to take jobs that don't require a college degree.
Two sectors have resisted automation - education and health care. The latter is slowly moving forward, helped by the accumulation and analyses of massive amounts of data that will slowly unravel a better understanding of 'What works' (many treatments don't help or are even harmful; regardless, many generally helpful treatments don't work for all patient situations), assist providers in accurate diagnoses (IBM's Watson is already training for this role) and providing helpful treatment reminders. Meanwhile, in the higher-education realm, MOOCs have been introduced, found wanting, and are now being improved and formally incorporated into degree/certificate programs. Elementary and high-schools have been the most resistant - however, adaptive learning has been introduced there and is also being steadily improved.
The fastest-growing market for robots is China - installations have grown about 25%/year since 2005, despite its relatively low wage rates. Another likely surprise - the source of much robot innovation. Microsoft's Xbox 360 console (available for $150) uses a webcam-like device that incorporates 3D machine vision capability that allows interaction simply by gesturing and moving within view of its camera. New 'Baxter' robots (about $20,000, can be used for light assembly, transferring parts between conveyers, packing product, tending machining operations) can be trained simply by moving its arms through the required motions - that robot can then send its 'learning' to others.
Standardized software and hardware building blocks have brought an explosion of application software for PCs, iPhones, iPads, Android apps, etc. Ford sees this pattern repeating with robots.
Ford's forecasts, unfortunately, cannot be taken at face value. For example, he sees 're-shoring' (bringing manufacturing jobs back to America) as becoming a major force, thanks to automation. Maybe. But will American robot manufacturing be competitive with Chinese robot manufacturing? If robots will tilt the playing field so much back in our favor, why are auto manufacturing building new plants in Mexico? And his claim that robots will allow siting American manufacturing closer to users ignores that reality of scale economies and the powerful existing transportation economies created by 1.5 mile-long trains transporting cargo containers across the U.S. Some industries will benefit (eg. fashion clothes), others will not.
Low wages and nearly complete lack of benefits have drawn intensive criticism and media coverage for the fast-food industry. Yet, when McDonald's launched a high-profile 2011 initiative to hire 50,000 new workers in a single day, it received over one million applications. Meanwhile, Momentum Machines is working to fully automate production of gourmet-quality hamburgers, believing its device will pay for itself in less than a year. Another potential advantage - improved hygiene as fewer workers would come in contact with the food.
'Retail worker' is another sector with very-high employment numbers. There we already have disruption via online retailers like Amazon and Netflix. Once jobs move to a warehouse they become far easier to automate - eg. Amazon is now placing Kiva robots (small devices that bring specific shelves to workers, rather than having workers walk to shelves) and one Wall Street analyst estimates those robots will allow Amazon to cut fulfillment costs up to 40%. Kroger warehouses are working on an even more sophisticated system eliminating labor used for storing items in its warehouses and preparing pallets for store delivery. Meanwhile, Netflix has driven Blockbuster etc. out of business, and Amazon et al have recently eliminated Borders and Circuit City from the landscape, and eg. movie rental kiosks (eg. Redbox) seem to be an anachronism,.
Ford then continues, considering the impact of robots on agriculture, and more intellectual realms.
I really wanted to like this book and it seemed to start out well enough, but after a few chapters Ford began veering off-topic and plowing into the weeds. At about a third of the way through I began speed-reading every other paragraph; at the halfway point, scanning one page every 15-20 seconds; around the 60-70% point, it was skimming, pausing to read a few sentences, skipping a page, more skimming, skipping 2-3 pages until the end. By the half-way mark, something about Fords basic thesis started to bother me but I couldn't quite put my finger on it at the time.
If you haven't been following the technology over the past decade, then the first third of the book does a passable job of bringing the reader up-to-date with what's been going on not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well, especially in China. Had he stuck to the technological side of robotics, especially in regards to developments in the coming one or two decades, then this would have been a far better effort. Instead, he chose to wander around haphazardly trying to take on major social and economic issues and failing at both; there were far too many overly-simplistic explanations. It seemed to me Ford just didn't want to take the time to dig a little deeper into these topics, a lot of his "analysis" seemed more like summaries based on a bunch of Google searches.
Robots are mechanical contraptions driven by computers driven by software driven by people writing the code. Robots and so-called artificial intelligence are two completely different topics; no robot operating today can be said to be truly intelligent, innovative, yes, but not actually intelligent in the formal sense of the word. The best bots in the world can barely operate at the level of a common house fly or cockroach; true, they're good at specific tasks like spray painting and welding, but they must work in a strictly-controlled environment. Yeah, I know I know, "but what about all those driverless cars?" Though a complicated task, driving is still a fairly specialized activity requiring huge amounts of processing and millions of lines of code just to keep the car on the road between the lines; the only we these things will ever be safe is to assign them to dedicated lanes with embedded wires & other tech to help guide them along.
Robots are being hyped-up today in the same way nanotechnology was twenty years ago. Yes, we've seen some great strides in nanotech but most of it is focused on the development of new materials -- we're no where near those wondrous nano-bots Eric Drexler was yammering on about some twenty years ago.
What I object to most about Ford's flawed dystopian view is that robots will be THE technology responsible for the complete breakdown of the global economy as we know it. Rubbish! Consider the transformative technologies from, say, the past 30 years: personal computers, the internet, cell phones, smart phones, e-books & ebook readers, tablet devices & apps, the Cloud, and social media: Did any of these cause our economy to collapse? Hell no! The economy not only thrived but GREW leaps and bounds!
For that matter, did the automobile destroy the economy of the early-1900's? How about the air plane? Radio, television, Coca-Cola, the washing machine? Did McDonald's, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby's and all the other fast-food joints put grocery stores out of business because people prepared fewer meals at home?
Entirely NEW classes of jobs were created along with NEW entrepreneurial opportunities, NEW businesses and NEW ways of doing things faster and better. True, the guy working at the candlestick factory lost his job but he was given the opportunity to start a small candlestick business at home then use the internet as his global storefront. Today, he can sell his cucumber-scented candles to customers virtually ANYWHERE in the world.
The U.S. population is rapidly aging and the rate of growth is declining, just as it is (or will be) in all first world industrialized countries like Japan; even with a generous immigration policy, we're actually going to NEED robots to help run things fifty or hundred years down the road. Japan is seeing this phenomenon NOW; it's no coincidence they've become the world's leader in advanced robotics. Another area where robots are desperately needed NOW is in outer space, specifically for the dangerous tasks of assembling large structures like space stations. The vacuum of space in very unforgiving to the poor astronaut who accidentally tears her suit or gets hit with a piece of space junk. Astronauts routinely have to interrupt EVA work due to things like solar flare eruptions, fatigue and low consumables. Robots don't have these problems.
Robots are -- and always will be -- appliances, like toasters (Battlestar Galactica fans will appreciate the analogy), but they will be a TRANSFORMATIVE technology, not a destructive one.
I have no CD player. the last 2 computers I have purchased have no CD player.
Who uses CD's anymore!?!
Once we pay they should stream it to us. (this is what I expected).
This is 2015 not 1995!
They may as well have sent me this audio book on an 8 track cassette - for all the good it will do me.
Shiny useless little disk!!!